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Opinion FBI data show assaults on police officers dropped sharply in 2014

The FBI recently released its data on assaults on police officers in 2014. The good news is that reported assaults are down sharply. Unarmed and assaults with guns both dropped, while assaults with knives and edged weapons went up slightly. But overall, as this chart tweeted by University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton shows, assaults on cops are at their lowest point since 1996 and have been dropping consistently since 2008.

This is just the latest piece of data to undermine the whole “war on cops” narrative. When you counter the war rhetoric by pointing out that killings of police officers are also in decline, and that this year is on pace to be the second safest on record, law-and-order types argue that the drop in fatalities is just due to better body armor, weapons and the willingness of cops to use lethal force. But if assaults are in decline as well, it isn’t just about body armor. It means that people aren’t trying to attack the police nearly as often. And that’s a pretty hard phenomenon to square with any perceived “war on cops.”

Conveniently, the law-and-order crowd has a response to this, too. Enter the “Ferguson Effect.” This is the argument that because we’re seeing more criticism of police, videos of police brutality and prosecutions of cops for particularly egregious conduct (although the total number of such prosecutions is still a very tiny number), the police are refusing to do their jobs. If cops are unwilling to insert themselves into potentially dangerous situations, the argument goes, they’re less likely to be killed or assaulted. The evidence for this is the rising crime rates in some cities. (But that data too are far from conclusive.) It’s an incredibly cynical assertion, and frankly, one that holds police officers in rather low regard. Imagine if every time a bad journalist was fired, other journalists refused to write articles. Or if every time a soldier was court-martialed, other soldiers refused to fight. Or if every time a doctor was stripped of his licensed or sued for malpractice, other doctors refused to treat patients.

But note too how conveniently the “war on cops” and “Ferguson Effect” narratives bookend the debate. If killings of and assaults on police officers go up, they can claim that criticism of police has inspired a war on cops. If killings of and assaults on police officers go down, they’ll claim that criticism of police is making cops reluctant to do their jobs. Either way, the police come out the victims, and those who want to hold bad cops accountable are to blame.

We should celebrate these figures. They show that while criticism of bad cops and counterproductive police tactics may be increasing, that criticism has not resulted in an increase in violence against law enforcement officers. This is a healthy thing. But instead of embracing these numbers, people who call themselves police supporters seize on anecdotes to push false, unsupported narratives that make cops feel as if they’re constantly under fire, that every interaction with a citizen could be their last. That builds tension and animosity, and creates a confrontational “us vs. them” mind-set that’s not only poisonous to police-community relations but also can cause unnecessary escalation and violence. Why put armed officials on edge if there’s no reason to do so?

The job of policing is not only getting safer, but it’s also reaching historically safe levels. Spread the word.